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Transportation Update: The Move Toward Self-Driving Trucks

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More than a year ago we covered the topic of autonomous trucks and the road ahead behind the technology driving this trend. We’re taking a fresh look at where we are when it comes to seeing self-driving trucks on our highways. 

Why Autonomous Trucks?

Trucking is a $700 billion industry affecting every corner of the economy, as vehicles haul natural resources from mines and forests and delivers goods to stores and homes and so much more. Virtually every physical product from food to paper towels and furniture has touched a truck several times by the time it gets to a consumer’s hands. The industry’s sheer size is an ideal fit for automation. Autonomous technology will help trucking companies reduce labor costs in the long run, first by extending the number of hours trucks are in operation, and later, by reducing the number of drivers. Accidents are also expected to be reduced which, if materialized, should also positively impact transportation insurance costs.

In addition, unlike self-driving cars, which face challenges in navigating chaotic urban streets, trucks spend a lot of time heading straight on desolate highways. And while the advent of the self-driving car will rest on the decisions of individual consumers, logistics companies will surely look to upgrade their fleets if it makes sense for them financially.

Where We Are Today?

According to CB Insights, a firm that tracks the venture capital industry, companies and investors this year are set to invest more than $1 billion into self-driving and other trucking technologies. This is ten times the level invested a mere three years ago.

For example, start-up Embark, which builds and operates autonomous trucks, has a three-way partnership with truck-leasing company Ryder and Electrolux, the appliance giant. Embark has been using its vehicles to haul Frigidaire refrigerators 650 miles from Electrolux’s warehouse in El Paso, Texas, to a distribution center in Palm Springs, California. A human driver rides in the cab to monitor the “computer chauffeur” for now, but the ultimate goal of this (auto) pilot program is to eventually allow the trucks to make their way down the freeway solo.

San Francisco start-up Starsky Robotics for the past two years has been testing its self-driving technology accompanied by drivers in running freight up and down Florida. The runs help collect data and hone the technology, in hopes of convincing regulators and the company itself that self-driving trucks are ready for business.

According to an article in the New York Times (NYT), the CEO at Waymo, the self-driving car unit owned by Google’s parent company, has said that self-driving trucks may emerge before self-driving taxis. Even companies not explicitly chasing the goal of self-driving trucks are moving steadily toward a more automated future. The 7,000-plus trucks owned by US Xpress, one of the nation’s largest trucking companies, has been updated with autonomous braking and collision-avoidance systems. Max Fuller, the company’s co-founder and executive chairman, plans to upgrade them to have automated lane steering in three years, cites the NYT article.

Other players in the autonomous transportation industry include Tesla, Volvo and Daimler, which are all working on their own robo-truckers.

Of course, companies still need to get through technical and regulatory hurdles before they can begin legally operating trucks without drivers.

As an integral part of the transportation industry providing risk management solutions for commercial trucks, commercial autos, public fleets, and others, RPS is keeping track of the progress underway with autonomous vehicles and its implications as it pertains to insurance. For information about our transportation insurance products, please give us a call.

Sources: New York Times, Wired

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